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USTR Advisory Groups Need To Be Improved

[Editorial note: This post is written by guest blogger Steve Charnovitz of George Washington University Law School. The views expressed herein are solely those of the individual contributor and do not necessarily reflect those of Public Citizen.]

Having advisory groups is important for governments and international organizations.  Left to themselves, government bureaucrats and international civil servants are often unimaginative and lack good ground-level information.  As I have noted in my scholarship over the past decades (see my website at, the role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has been especially fruitful and vital in international trade policy going back to 1920s.

Official US advisory committees for trade policy hark back to the Randall Commission in the 1950s.  The process was regularized in the Trade Expansion Act of 1962 which authorized the USTR to seek advice from industry, labor, and agriculture, and then further formalized in the Trade Act of 1974 which set up the advisory committee system.

Currently USTR has eight formal advisory committees.  See

For two of them, the Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee and the Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs), there is no information on the USTR website as to who got invited to sit on those Committees. Thus, I cannot comment on whether those committees have sufficient expertise and balance.  In my view, the USTR website should be completely transparent as to who sits on those advisory committees. 

For the other six committees, the USTR web does have information regarding Committee membership.  For some of these, balance and diversity is lacking.

The top level committee is the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations (ACTPN).  Of the 32 members, 27 come from business, two from universities or think tanks, one from a labor union, one from the federal government, and one from a state government. 

Clearly that is imbalanced.  Other than the labor union member, there are no NGOs (such as Global Trade Watch), religious leaders, foundation representatives, well-known trade economists (such as Professor Jagdish Bhagwati), or experts in international trade law.  The lack of consumer NGOs is especially odd given that consumers are the biggest beneficiaries of trade.  Also missing are experts from other countries, such as the South Centre in Geneva or CUTS in India.  I learned recently that China’s sovereign wealth fund has an international advisory committee. If China has grown out of its historical parochialism, why can’t the United States solicit the advice of most of the world that is outside of the United States?

The next most important advisory committee is the Labor Advisory Committee.  It has 13 members.  All of them are from organized labor unions.  In my view, this is lopsided because it presents only one narrow viewpoint.  Today, only about 12 percent of the wage and salary workforce is unionized. Of course, I do not mean to suggest that union leaders cannot reflect the interests of workers who work outside of union membership. They may.  But the fact that the Committee contains no workplace regulators, employers, labor economists, human resource and training specialists or professors of employment law is quite disturbing. 

The Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee is also important.  It has 36 members, all but one of whom appear to represent the business side of the sector.  I see there is one academic (Robert L. Thompson) on of the Committee, who writes about agricultural policy.  I do not know him but his appointment seems to me to be a good one.  Clearly, however, this committee is totally imbalanced.  Although it is hard to tell by the descriptions of the members, I don’t see any agronomists, nutritionists, food policy specialists, or food safety experts.

Another important committee is the one on Intergovernmental Policy.  It has 24 members drawn from states courts, state legislators, state regulators, state and local associations in  Washington, state cabinet officials, state elected officials, and others.  I don’t know anything about the dynamics of this group, but from the list of participants, this one seems balanced and diverse.

The TEPAC is the Trade and Environment Advisory Committee.  It was set up in the early 1990s and thus is newer than most.  It has 23 members drawn from industry, think tanks, environmental NGOs, consumer NGOs, and local law firms and consultants.  I know many of these members and would say that this Committee is diverse and distinguished.  I doubt that is has had much impact on USTRpolicy over the past 15 years, but that is another story.

The newest Advisory Committee is the one on Africa..  It is unclear to me why if USTR is to have regional advisory committees, there is only one on Africa and not on the other continents.  Indeed, by its description, the Committee does not focus on all of Africa, but only sub-Saharan Africa.  In any event, Committee has 23 members drawn from trade associations, trade consultants, NGOs, foundations, business, and one academic.  I don’t see anyone from Africa on it.  Aside from that obvious omission, the Committee seems balanced and has significant expertise. 

Looking over the list in total, it’s clear that additional Committees should be added. One would be a committee on Trade and Public Health to discuss issues relating to the intersection of trade rules and health regulation.  Another would be a Committee on International Trade Law to discuss the architecture of new trade agreements and the problems of compliance and trade law enforcement. 

On July 16, I used the “Ask the Ambassador” program on the USTR website to ask Ambassador Kirk a question regarding trade enforcement.  Sad to say, my question has not been answered or posted by USTR on its blog.  This is especially amusing as I read in “Inside US Trade” today that Lisa Garcia, a USTR official, has told the Congress that Ambassador Kirk’s “number one priority” is “public outreach.”  I guess what the Administration means by public outreach is getting its message out, not listening to the public or answering its questions.  Indeed, there is no way on the USTR website for the public to post questions in order to hold USTR officials accountable for answering the questions.  The new era of government accountability promised by President Obama has apparently not yet been arrived at UST

Since it has been not officially posted by USTR, I will post my question here:

July 16, 2009

    Mr. Ambassador:

    Today you announced “New Trade Enforcement Efforts.” In your speech you affirmed “this Administration’s commitment to trade enforcement.”  You also suggested “holding a magnifying glass” to the action of America’s trading partners so “they’ll be less likely to break the rules.” 

    My question is whether as part of these new efforts, you will commit the United States to immediately comply with all of the international judicial decisions where the United States is violating international trade rules?  One thinks, for example, of the recent World Trade Organization decisions regarding the notorious “zeroing” practices where the United States was found to be violating antidumping rules (e.g., Cases DS294, 322).  And the NAFTA case regarding trucking services.  If the Obama Administration does not bring the United States into compliance in the cases where the United States is breaking the rules, then isn’t it  hypocritical for you to point to other countries?  Shouldn’t the United States lead by example in the being the most law-abiding country on trade?  With all due respect, Mr. Ambassador, I would submit that rather then use a magnifying glass on the smaller countries of the world, the USTR should use a mirror to look at whether the Obama Administration has a commitment to trade enforcement when the United States is the scofflaw in trade law cases"

It will be interesting to see what response I get from my inquiry or whether I get any response at all.

This will be my last of the five posts this week.  I want to again thank Public Citizen for inviting me to be a guest blogger this week.

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